On Wednesday the news broke that the Government was going to measure the level of hunger in the UK. This is a major victory for supporters of the End Hunger UK campaign, including the four Churches which work together in the Joint Public Issues Team. More importantly the scale of hunger in the UK can no longer be dismissed and ignored. It will be a reality that all Governments from now on will need to acknowledge and address.
Progress is happening – all too slowly for those who are struggling to feed their children – but progress none-the-less.
We have come a long way
It is important to acknowledge how far we have come – as well as how far we still need to go.
When I started looking at UK poverty in 2010 the outlook was bleak. Public attitudes to people experiencing poverty were at an all-time low. The benefit system was seen as rife with fraudsters and “scroungers”, who suffered from a “culture of worklessness”.
Three types of failure – personal failure, failure to get work and failure to avoid poverty – were bound together and presented as one. The solution offered was to get tough – reduce their benefits and increase punishments for people believed to be not trying hard enough to get work.
The press was at times in a feeding frenzy, devouring stories that portrayed benefit claimants as morally degenerate – even linking murders of children to the supposed “welfare culture”. Politicians from across the political spectrum often joined in, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Government used its resources to produce inaccurate and insulting statistics that – to quote the Economist magazine – “floated out of [the DWP] into the public debate like raw sewage”.
This was the environment in which today’s social security policies were devised and it shows.
Happy New Year 2019
For the first time in a decade I woke up on New Year’s Day filled with hope that these things were going to change for the better. Now when the media phones me up, they don’t ask for stories of scroungers – or even what they hope would be uplifting “churchy” stories of scroungers redeemed. Today they are interested in real people’s lives, and are often open to being told difficult stories that don’t fit a simple narrative.
There is a growing understanding that the majority of people experiencing poverty are in work. That taxpayers and benefit claimants are not two competing groups, but often the same people. The British Social Attitudes Survey shows us that the general public’s attitudes towards people receiving benefits is becoming more positive, and today all sections of the press present stories describing the injustices of the benefit system.
Importantly the Government has realised that pretending there is no problem just looks ridiculous. After over 6 years of significant problems, the Government has finally acknowledged that all is not well with its flagship reform Universal Credit. Movement – however belated and begrudging – is happening.
Measuring food poverty is a big step forward because when the first data is published (Spring 2021) the denials of the past will no longer be an option and we will have a way of seeing if policies are genuinely reducing hunger.
Why we have this opportunity
It would be nice to be able to say these changes came because of the hard work of campaigners such as ourselves. Certainly we have had our part to play, but the sad reality is that this change arrived because the suffering caused by poverty in the UK has become too great to ignore. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report into UK Poverty describes this suffering all too harrowingly, but just as shaming is his description of our nation’s valiant attempts to keep ignoring the problem.
My fear, from meeting with officials and politicians, is that the default path will be to address the problems…until it becomes possible to go back to ignoring the suffering. The comfortable assumption that both poverty and wealth are deserved is currently hard to maintain – but many long to return to it.
Much more needs to be done – even with these small steps more families will be trapped in poverty next year than this. More children will grow up struggling in 2020 than 2019 – even though we know that a functional social security system could provide families with the solid platform they need to escape poverty.
The Joint Public Issues Team workplan has as a key theme: “A society where those who are poorest are at the centre”. This flows from our understanding of what Christians are called to do, and our belief that all people have a dignity and worth that should be valued and nurtured.
My hope is that we use this opportunity to ensure that those who experience poverty are so firmly embedded in how government and the media operate that they cannot be excluded. There are glimmers of hope. Poverty Truth Commissions are springing up around the country. Leeds PTC helped with this fantastic video on the Guardian website – it is worth 24 minutes of anyone’s time. In Scotland the new welfare system is co-designed by “experience panels” of people who use the benefit system. Project Twist it is telling a new story about poverty and the helping the media to reflect the complicated reality.
Change is coming – the default pathway is not good enough but with effort church members, congregations and Churches can be part creating “a society where those who are poorest are at the centre”.
Two more important targets that you can help to achieve:
- An end to the five week wait for the first Universal Credit payment. Sign up to the #5weekstoolong campaign from Trussell Trust.
- An end to the Benefit Freeze. This is the largest but least dramatic benefit cut. By 2020 it is expected to cost over 10 million families each year £800 each year.
Since 2015 while prices go up benefits have stayed the same – cutting benefits by the rate of inflation each year. Inflation has been higher than predicted and so the cuts have been larger than expected but are still due to continue.
Next year it will cut a further £1.6Bn and MPs from all parties are questioning if it can continue. In the run up to the Spring statement we need to push very hard on this.